A recent decision of the Hong Kong Court of Appeal addresses the importance of the solicitor’s role in preparing and attending to the execution of a Will, particularly in the context of a Will challenge. The decision is discussed in this article. Although the decision is from Hong Kong, the test applied in respect of testamentary capacity is, as it is in Canada, the classic criteria from Banks v Goodfellow. In this regard, I found it interesting to consider the Hong Kong Court’s decision.
In Ontario, when a Will has been duly executed, meaning that it has been executed in accordance with the requirements set out in the Succession Law Reform Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S.26, there is a presumption that the Will is valid. However, where suspicious circumstances are shown to exist surrounding the preparation and execution of a Will, this presumption will be spent, and the propounder will be required to prove that the testator had the requisite testamentary capacity to execute the Will. We have previously blogged about which party must prove certain elements in a Will challenge.
According to the article, the same presumption arising from due execution appears to exist in Hong Kong. In the decision of Choy Po Chun & Anor v Au Wing Lun (CACV 177/2014), the Hong Kong Court of Appeal places some additional responsibility with respect to the “due execution” of Wills on solicitors preparing them. In particular, the Court of Appeal sets out that a solicitor should undertake proper groundwork and make proper enquiries, such as following a checklist from the British Medical Association regarding the assessment of mental capacity, and the “golden rule” that a Will for an elderly or ill testator should be witnessed or approved by a medical practitioner who has examined the testator.
In this decision, the Court of Appeal set aside the lower court’s decision that the Will in question was valid. As the solicitor had not taken the additional steps noted above (namely following the checklist and the “golden rule”), it could not be presumed that the Banks v Goodfellow criteria had been met, and therefore each element of the test should have been asked, and proven by the propounder of the Will.
In reviewing the guidelines set out by the Court of Appeal, as summarized in the article, it seems as though the solicitor is being asked to consider whether suspicious circumstances may appear to exist, and to take additional steps if that may be the case. In particular, the Court of Appeal suggests the following:
- Where Will instructions are given by the children of an elderly testator who is not in good health, the lawyer should meet with the testator personally to confirm instructions;
- In the case of an elderly or infirm testator, the solicitor should follow the checklist noted above; and
- The solicitor should follow the “golden rule” when preparing a will for an aged or seriously ill testator.
While this decision is not binding in Canada, it nevertheless raises some interesting points, which a prudent solicitor may wish to consider and implement in their practice. For instance, it may be advisable to confirm instructions directly with the testator if initially provided by another individual, and take steps to confirm whether a testator has the requisite capacity in circumstances where he or she may be elderly and/or in poor health.
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I hope that everyone had a wonderful long weekend and has been able to check a couple of items off their summer “bucket list”. If the summer has been passing you by a little too quickly, and you feel that you are missing out—don’t worry! A recent essay in the Wall Street Journal makes the case for, at the least, scaling back on bucket lists:
Nobody really needs to go falconing in Mongolia or ride on the back of a nurse shark in Alaska for their life to be complete. They need to raise kids who won’t grow up to hate them. Or take care of their aging mother and make sure she gets a nice send-off.
That being said, there are a couple of things that we at Hull & Hull would recommend adding to your “bucket list”:
- Have a Will and Powers of Attorney: If you don’t take the time to set out what your wishes are, you risk those wishes being either unknown, or not respected.
- Review your Will and Powers of Attorney & Know what they say: You should be confident that you not only know exactly what your Will and Powers of Attorney say, but that they continue to represent your wishes. Particularly if your estate planning documents were prepared a number of years ago, it is important to review these documents and ensure that you recall their contents, so as to avoid any unexpected outcomes. If you are familiar with the contents of your Will and Powers of Attorney, you are more likely to be triggered by changes in circumstances that may affect you, and to take steps to adjust your estate planning documents accordingly.
- Revisit your estate plan: It is important to review your estate plan and consult with your lawyer regularly. There are a number of life events that can impact the effect of your Will, including marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, the death of an estate trustee, the death of a beneficiary, a beneficiary developing a disability, changes in the law, and the list goes on. If you aren’t revisiting and updating your Will regularly, based on changes in circumstances, the way in which your estate is ultimately distributed on your death could be vastly different than what you originally envisioned.
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A recent decision from the Court of Appeal for Ontario, Dujardin v Dujardin, 2018 ONCA 597, considers an appeal with respect to a Will challenge on the basis that the testator lacked testamentary capacity. The testator in this situation was a frequent consumer of alcohol. Despite what the trial judge called the testator’s “chronic alcoholism”, it seemed as though he was able to function normally on a day-to-day basis, including in business dealings relating to a family farm owned by the testator and his brother. Following the testator’s death, his wife disputed his Will, under which she received no benefit.
Recently, my colleagues, Noah Weisberg and Garrett Horrocks, discussed whether the classic test for testamentary capacity as set out in Banks v Goodfellow should be updated, and a new test as proposed in an article in the Canadian Bar Review, Vol 95 No. 1 (2017), Banks v Goodfellow (1870): Time to Update the Test for Testamentary Capacity.
The article opines that the context of the testator, including, for instance, family dynamics, should be incorporated explicitly into the test for testamentary capacity. This means that we would be asking the question: “can this particular person, with his or her particular mental abilities, in this particular situation, make this particular Will, at this particular time?”, rather than “can this testator make a Will?”
I thought the suggestions in the article were interesting when considering the facts of the Dujardin decision, and the findings of the trial judge. It seems as though the lower court took into account a number of contextual factors in applying the Banks v Goodfellow test, ultimately leading to a conclusion that the testator did possess the requisite testamentary capacity, a conclusion which was upheld by the Court of Appeal.
In particular, some of the interesting contextual factors included:
- the history of the testator and his brother’s ownership and operation of the family farm, and the brothers’ consistent desires to leave their respective shares of the farm to each other upon their death;
- prior mirror Wills executed by the brothers 13 years before the testator’s death, which reflected the same intention as the later Will that was being challenged (the testator’s prior will was revoked in 2000 when he married his wife); and
- the testator’s relationship dynamic with his wife, with whom it appeared he was not close, and the provision that he made for her outside of his Will.
In particular, the Court of Appeal commented that “[g]enerally, the manner in which [the testator] disposed of his property made sense in the context of his life and familial relationships.”
Had the trial judge not considered the various contextual factors, it’s possible she could have arrived at a different conclusion. Subject to the medical evidence, given that the testator suffered from alcoholism, it may have been open to the court to conclude that this condition had, in fact, affected the testator’s cognition.
In any event, it is interesting to see a practical example of the ideas put forth in the article mentioned above, and to consider how the suggestions of the authors may come into play in real-world situations.
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When making testamentary gifts in a Will, if a specific bequest fails for any reason, the assets in question will fall into the residue of the estate. However, if a gift of residue fails, the distribution of whatever assets are affected by the failure will be governed by the intestacy provisions set out in Part II of the Succession Law Reform Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S.26.
The recent decision of Sabetti v Jimenez, 2018 ONSC 3523 in part considers the interpretation of a residue clause in order to determine whether there is a partial intestacy in respect of the estate of Ms. Valdes.
The applicant, Mr. Sabetti, was Ms. Valdes’ second husband. She had three adult children from her prior marriage. Ms. Valdes’ Will provided that the residue of her estate was to be divided into four equal shares. The first share was to be held in trust for Mr. Sabetti during his lifetime, and on his death, whatever amount was remaining was to fall into and form part of the residue. The remaining three shares were to be transferred to Ms. Valdes’ three children.
Mr. Sabetti claimed that because of the gift-over of his share of the residue, which provides that it is to form part of the residue, the beneficiaries of the first share of the residue were not named with sufficient certainty, and a partial intestacy must result. Ultimately, the Honourable Justice Dunphy concluded that Ms. Valdes’ intention was clear on the face of the will, and found that there was no partial intestacy.
In its decision, the Court goes through an interesting analysis of the residue clause, outlining the rules applicable to construction of documents. Where there are two possible interpretations, one of which creates an absurd result, and one of which is in line with the apparent intention of the maker of the document, the latter is to be preferred. It is also preferable to construe a will so as to lead to a testacy over an intestacy, if it is possible to do so without straining the language of the Will or violating the testator’s intention.
In this case, the Court found that to interpret the term of the residue according to Mr. Sabetti’s position would lead to an absurd result. In terms of Ms. Valdes’ intention, the Court was of the view that the intended beneficiaries of the remainder interest were clearly the other three shares of the residue. The Court found no difficulty in discerning the testator’s intention or in applying it, and was able to read the Will in such a way as to avoid an intestacy.
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Alberta recently passed legislation which will allow for the use of Henson trusts in estate planning in the province. Although Henson trusts are commonly used in Ontario, prior to this new legislation, the law in Alberta provided that the value of an individual’s interest in a trust was to be included in calculating his or her assets for the purpose of determining eligibility under Alberta’s Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (“AISH”) program, thus preventing the effective use of Henson trusts.
A Henson trust is a type of trust often used here in Ontario in situations where a beneficiary is a recipient of The Ontario Disability Support Program (“ODSP”). An individual’s eligibility for ODSP is determined based on his or her income and assets. The Henson trust has emerged as a strategy to provide for a disabled beneficiary without compromising his or her eligibility to receive ODSP benefits.
The regulations to the Ontario Disability Support Program Act, 1997, S.O. 1997, c. 25, Sched. B provide that if a person has a beneficial interest in a trust that is derived from an inheritance or proceeds of a life insurance policy, provided that it does not exceed $100,000.00, this interest will not be included in calculating his or her assets. On the other hand, a Henson trust is not restricted as to size, as it is set up to be fully discretionary, such that the beneficiary does not have a vested interest in the trust.
A Henson trust would usually be set up such that the beneficiary who is a recipient of ODSP is the subject of the trustee’s absolute discretion to make distributions to him or her. Upon the beneficiary’s death, there will typically be a gift-over to a person or entity other than the disabled beneficiary. As the disabled beneficiary is not entitled to any assets from the trust (given the trustee’s absolute discretion), it is not considered to be an asset of his or hers. The trustee of a Henson trust should still be mindful in making discretionary distributions to the disabled beneficiary, so as not to exceed the maximum annual income receivable by them, and possibly risk disentitling the beneficiary to ODSP benefits.
As discussed in this article, Alberta recently passed An Act to Strengthen Financial Security for Persons with Disabilities (SA 2018, c 12), which provides that a person’s interest in a trust is not to be included in the calculation of that person’s assets for the purpose of AISH, and repeals the section of the regulations which previously allowed for the inclusion of a trust interest in this calculation. As noted in the article, this will now allow for the use of Henson trusts in Alberta, and provide more flexibility in estate planning where a disabled beneficiary is receiving government support.
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Capacity is a fundamental consideration in many aspects of estate, trust, and attorneyship litigation. The capacity of an individual to take a particular legal step, for example, to effect a distribution of property or to make a valid testamentary document, will often form the basis of a claim or court application. However, as set out in today’s blog, capacity is specific as to task, time, and situation. Context is a key factor in assessing capacity or lack thereof.
Whether an individual will be found to be capable of taking a particular legal step depends on the nature of the step being taken and when this step was taken. By way of example, the threshold for the capacity required by a testator to execute a valid Last Will and Testament differs from, and is considerably higher than, the threshold of an individual seeking to grant a power of attorney for property or personal care.
The capacity to make a valid will requires an individual to have a clear understanding of the nature and extent of their assets, and to understand the effects of the dispositions being made including any claims that might arise as a result. The capacity to grant a power of attorney for property, while similar to testamentary capacity, is a lower threshold. An individual will be capable of granting a power of attorney for property provided that,
- they have a general understanding of the nature and value of their property;
- are aware of the obligations owed to any of their dependants; and
- understand the nature of the rights being given to the attorney as well as the rights that they retain as the grantor of the power of attorney, for example, the right to revoke the power of attorney if capable.
While the capacity to grant a power of attorney for property only requires the grantor to have a general understanding of their property or their obligations, testamentary capacity requires specific knowledge and appreciation of potential legal ramifications. Accordingly, an assessment of an individual’s capacity in each respect will impart different requirements.
Capacity is also specific as to time, particularly as an individual’s capacity may fluctuate depending on illness or circumstance. While somewhat uncommon in practice, an individual who was previously assessed as incapable may subsequently regain the capacity to take a particular legal step. Accordingly, when acting on behalf of an individual challenging the validity of a testamentary document or disposition of property, it is important to consider not only the grantor’s historical capacity or lack thereof, but also whether capacity may have been regained at some point prior to the disposition being challenged.
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The general rule, one that most people are probably familiar with when they think of a Will, is that the testator has to have the requisite capacity in order to be able to execute it. But what does that mean?
Generally, it means that a person should be of sound mind and understanding and have sufficient capacity to appreciate the various dispositions of property that would be put into effect with his or her execution of the Will. In other words, the testator must:
(1) understand that they are giving their property to one or more objects of his or her regard;
(2) have the capacity to comprehend the extent of their property and the nature of the claims of others to whom they are giving nothing under the Will.
In the case of a deceased who committed suicide, a question that may arise is whether a person who is about to commit suicide has the appropriate testamentary capacity to be able to execute a Will?
In that regard, it is important to remember that the onus is on the person who is propounding the Will – in other words applying to the court for an order that the Will is valid. In the usual course, there is certainly no presumption against the testamentary capacity of a testator. Indeed, it is quite the opposite. However, in cases where a proposition is made that a death (suicide) note is the last valid will and testament of a testator, it is more likely that someone may object. That is especially the case where an expected beneficiary is disinherited under such a circumstance.
As soon as capacity is called into question, the onus lies on the party propounding the Will to affirm testamentary capacity.
Suicide, in itself, does not equate to testamentary incapacity – although it is a circumstance that may be considered. In fact, a testator may have testamentary capacity even if they are not of entirely sound mind. That means that prior to committing suicide, a person can very well have testamentary capacity. If that is the case, then a death note can be considered a Holograph Will, which in Ontario, in accordance with section 6 of the Succession Law Reform Act, has the following requirements in order to be valid:
(1) It must be entirely in the testator’s hand writing; and
(2) It must be signed by the testator.
There is no requirement for witnesses in the case of a Holograph Will and it must be that the testator intended to dispose of their property after death.
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I recently came across several articles (one of which can be found here) regarding the elder financial abuse of a senior gentleman in Moncton, New Brunswick. Around 2013, Mr. Goguen had been living in the home that he owned, with tenants residing in part of the property. Upon deciding to sell his home, Mr. Goguen was referred to Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier, licensed real estate agents in New Brunswick. After the home had been listed for sale for some time, without success, Ms. Hannah apparently told Mr. Goguen that his home was in such deplorable condition that it would be impossible to sell without making certain repairs (which Ms. Hannah says Mr. Goguen could not afford) and removing the tenants (whom Ms. Hannah has claimed were using drugs and not paying rent).
As a result of the alleged difficulty in selling Mr. Goguen’s house, he, Ms. Hannah, and Mr. Poirier entered into an agreement whereby Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier purchased Mr. Goguen’s home. The terms of the arrangement were not favourable to Mr. Goguen, and it appears that Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier did not follow through on certain aspects of the agreement.
The Financial and Consumer Services Commission, which regulates real estate agents in New Brunswick, has revoked Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier’s real estate licenses. The Commission stated that Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier committed financial abuse of a senior and took “outrageous and egregious advantage” of Mr. Goguen. The Public Trustee of New Brunswick has now become involved on Mr. Goguen’s behalf, and has filed a statement of claim against Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier, seeking $83,320.00, characterized as the amount owing to Mr. Goguen.
We’ve blogged about elder abuse a number of times. Unfortunately, due to factors such as isolation, physical difficulties, and cognitive impairments, elderly people are often vulnerable to abuse. Given this vulnerability, and the circumstances in which abuse occurs, it can go undetected for a significant amount of time. In such situations, it may be too late to make the elderly person “whole” if the abuse is not discovered until it is too late.
Fortunately in Mr. Goguen’s case, despite the fact that it took a number of years, the Public Trustee discovered the abuse and is now taking steps to protect Mr. Goguen and recoup funds owed to him by his abusers. However, the Public Trustee is seeking the amount of approximately $83,000.00, which may not fully reimburse Mr. Goguen for the value of the house had it been sold to a normal third-party purchaser. Additionally, one of the articles also notes that Mr. Goguen had named Ms. Hannah and Mr. Poirier as his attorneys, and also executed a will naming them as executors and beneficiaries of his estate. It is unclear whether the Public Trustee has sought any relief in this regard. As such, even though the Public Trustee may be pursuing relief on Mr. Goguen’s behalf, it is an unfortunate possibility that he may continue to feel the effects of the abuse.
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The Substitute Decisions Act, 1992, S.O. 1992, c. 30 (the “SDA”), governs, among other things, the appointment of guardians for incapable persons. There are two types of guardians: a guardian for property and a guardian for personal care.
Sections 22(1) and 55(1) of the SDA provide that the Court may, on any person’s application, appoint a guardian of property or of the person, for a person who is incapable of managing property or personal care if, as a result of the said incapacity, it is necessary for decisions to be made on his or her behalf.
In order to appoint a guardian for someone, the Court will need to make a finding of incapacity for that person. This is an important hurdle, and the Court will generally need to see evidence that the person in question has been assessed as incapable of managing property and/or personal care prior to making a finding that he or she is incapable.
Depending on the circumstances, a person may submit to a capacity assessment voluntarily. However, according to section 78(1) of the SDA, if a person refuses to be assessed, an assessor shall not perform the assessment. Section 79 of the SDA allows the Court to order that a person be assessed, provided that the Court is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to believe the person is incapable. Additionally, to obtain a Court Order for an assessment, there must be a proceeding under the SDA, in which the person’s capacity is in issue. The Ontario Court of Appeal in Neill v Pellolio, 2001 ONCA 6452 held that there is no stand-alone relief available for an Order for a capacity assessment in the absence of an application brought under the SDA. Accordingly, obtaining a finding of incapacity from the Court may not be a simple endeavour.
The SDA also has in place measures to protect an individual’s decision-making rights from undue restriction. Sections 22(3) and 55(2) state that the Court shall not appoint a guardian if it is satisfied that the need for decisions to be made will be met by an alternative course of action that does not require the Court to find the person incapable, and is less restrictive of the person’s decision-making rights than the appointment of a guardian.
Accordingly, for example, if a person has already granted a power of attorney, allowing the named attorney to act would constitute a less restrictive course of action which also does not require the Court to make a finding of incapacity in order for decisions to be made for an incapable person. Furthermore, if a person is incapable of managing their property or personal care, but remains capable of granting a power of attorney, that would likely also constitute a less restrictive course of action, and would allow that person to exercise their decision-making rights.
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In November 2017, my colleague, Sayuri Kagami, blogged about the Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision in Teixeira v Markgraf Estate, which considered the validity of a gift in the form of a cheque cashed after the death of the payor. Today’s blog discusses similar facts in the court’s decision in Rubner v Bistricer. That is, whether pre-signed blank cheques cashed after the payor is declared incapable of managing property constitute either an enforceable promise to gift or, in the alternative, a valid inter vivos gift.
In the late 1960s, the patriarch of the Rubner family, Karl, purchased a 10% stake in a real estate development in Oakville known as the Lower Fourth Joint Venture. Karl kept legal title to this interest in the name of his wife, Eda, with the intention that their three children, Marvin, Joseph, and Brenda, each receive beneficial ownership of a one-third share in the Lower Fourth interest.
Brenda subsequently renounced her share in the Lower Fourth interest to avoid triggering certain tax consequences. Accordingly, her share reverted back to Eda, who then set up an account into which the income generated by Brenda’s former share would be deposited. Notwithstanding that she had disclaimed her share, however, Brenda nonetheless wanted to retain the income that her share generated. In 2014, Eda agreed to sign several blank cheques for the benefit of Brenda and her husband, allowing them to collect the income from Brenda’s former share without incurring the tax liability.
In November 2016, Eda was assessed as being incapable of managing property. Shortly thereafter, Brenda’s husband filled in and deposited two of the blank cheques previously signed by Eda in order to prevent Brenda’s brothers from using those funds to pay for Eda’s expenses.
Brenda’s brothers subsequently commenced an application seeking, amongst other relief, a declaration that the funds withdrawn by Brenda after Eda became incapable were held on a resulting or constructive trust for Eda’s benefit. Brenda took the position that Eda had intended that these funds be considered gifts for Brenda’s benefit. She claimed that at a family meeting in 2012 or 2013, Eda had specifically agreed to gift to Brenda all future income generated by Brenda’s former share in Lower Fourth.
The court was tasked with considering whether a purported promise of future gifts could constitute valid inter vivos gifts. In order to establish a valid inter vivos gift, the recipient must show:
- An intention to make a gift on the part of the donor, without consideration or expectation of remuneration;
- An acceptance of the gift by the donee, and
- A sufficient act of delivery or transfer of the property to complete the transaction.
The court held that the first step and third steps in this analysis could not be satisfied once Eda had been declared incapable of managing her property. Eda was deemed to have been unable to formulate the necessary intention to make a gift with respect to the blank cheques. Moreover, the court held that the delivery of “signed, blank cheques cannot amount to a complete gift”, as the drawer retains an interest in the amount of the cheque until it is cashed. Once Eda became incapable of managing her property, the gift could no longer be perfected. The blank cheques that were cashed after Eda was assessed as incapable of managing her property were held to be invalid, and Brenda was ordered to repay the amounts withdrawn.
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